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Red Dead Redemption 2 review: An incredible Western that will deliver months of open-world adventure

Rockstar's ultra ambitious Western saga raises the bar for open-world storytelling and will likely go down as a generational milestone.

Jeff Bakalar Editor at Large
Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.
Jeff Bakalar
7 min read

Over the last eight days I've spent roughly 45 hours inside the world of Red Dead Redemption 2, playing as Arthur Morgan, a member of the Dutch Van der Linde gang. It's a time in America when lawlessness is becoming a thing of the past and being in an outlaw gang seems like a poor career decision. Red Dead 2 tells the story of Arthur's relationship with the gang and its fatherlike figurehead, Dutch.

The Good

Red Dead Redemption 2 is among the most ambitious open-world games ever produced, packing an extraordinary amount of content into an equally enormous world. Almost nothing feels cut and pasted. Its compelling story is filled with memorable characters and scenes.

The Bad

Cowboy life is slow and sometimes Red Dead 2 can drag, especially early on. Infrequent graphical bugs and glitches can pop up.

The Bottom Line

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a marvelous achievement in nearly every sense and a shoo-in for one of the best games of this generation.

I've been pouring hours upon hours into what I can confidently describe as one the most fully realized and explorable fictional worlds I've ever come across. As a whole, it's an astonishing work of art and arguably the most realistic Western simulation ever conceived. Put it this way: Red Dead 2 makes Westworld look like City Slickers. The game is available Oct. 26 for PS4 and Xbox One.

Read: How to buy Red Dead Redemption 2

And those 45 hours have not been time wasted either. I've spent them managing my gang's camp, hunting, robbing trains, collecting bounties, deciding what to wear, chasing down debts owed, shaving, playing poker, moving camp, surviving ambushes and taking care of my horse.

And after all that -- after all of the bullets fired, lawmen outrun and rival gang members felled, the game tells me I'm only about 34 percent of the way through. Don't attempt to marathon your way through Red Dead 2, because this game will break you.

Rockstar Games

Not because it's difficult, but because the sheer magnitude of what's being introduced is nearly vertigo-inducing. It's tough to overstate just how massive it is.

It all unfolds innocently enough, in a deliberately slow fashion, forcing you to appreciate the faucet-drip pace of life in 1899. In many ways it's a true-to-life, moment-to-moment cowboy simulator, leaving out few nuances of human life.

Initially set during a paralyzing blizzard, everything feels intentionally lethargic, with a molasses-like flow to it. As things begin to crystallize, Red Dead 2 feels incomprehensibly insurmountable, like a mountain with no summit. It's much less a traditional sequel (or in this case, prequel) to 2010's Red Dead Redemption and more a meaty evolutionary successor, bringing it to a level that attempts to break the mold of formulaic open-world games that live and die through missions and side objectives. Where Red Dead 1 felt like Grand Theft Auto with horses, Red Dead 2 seems like a generational milestone.

Red Dead 2 essentially treats every "missionable" element in the game with the same amount of meaningful importance. By doing so it's able to communicate a much more seamless and cohesive overarching narrative. Eliminating the "map barf" that other open world games have grown to rely on, Red Dead 2 leans into its steady pacing and encourages players to explore and discover. And for the most part, it pays off. Red Dead 2 introduces a world that feels complex, deep and varied. It does a remarkable job at injecting a tangible weight throughout, giving purpose and consequence to nearly every action you commit.

Rockstar Games

The notion of having to complete a checklist of objectives doesn't come through in Red Dead 2. Almost nothing in the game feels repetitive or cut and pasted. Remarkably, everything feels unique.

Typically, a lot of the focus on a Rockstar game is primarily on the attention to detail and production value. But these things are so much more important in Red Dead 2 because a lot of those details have micromechanics attached to them. Forget to wear a mask while committing a crime? You're easier to identify. Haven't eaten in a long time? Your health will drain quicker. Didn't pack a warmer outfit for the night time? You're more vulnerable to the elements. Haven't cleaned your gun in a while? It won't perform to the best of its ability.

That level of detail can feel daunting. In the first dozen hours you're presented with a smattering of responsibilities that presumably require your constant attention, but it eventually becomes clear that some of these tasks don't need to be monitored that closely.

Rockstar Games

For example, your gang campground -- which acts as a home base of sorts -- needs support through donations, food supplies and ammunition refills. But if you casually check in on these metrics every time the game has you revisit the campground, odds are it won't ever be an issue. Even the hunting system, which the game spends a good deal of time teaching you early on, doesn't seem like much of a required chore.

And I suppose that's the point. Red Dead 2 isn't really meant to be played in any specific way. You can essentially do whatever you'd like, even abandon the gang for days at a time. It's not like they can text you. For a while, I became fixated on figuring out the whereabouts of a serial killer who left a gruesome scene outside my camp. A few days later I was trying to locate a supposed hidden treasure that was never recovered, using only a shady map I bought off some guy for $5.

However you decide to play, your actions will have an impact on the way people perceive you. If you're wanted in a town and its citizens recognize you, their guard goes up. The way you choose to carry yourself sends messages whether you want it to or not. A clean-shaven character seems more trustworthy than someone who hasn't bathed in a month.

Rockstar Games

Red Dead 2 does an excellent job of making you appreciate your place in the world and understand that actions have consequences. It's a lesson taught almost immediately. Forgot to take that rifle from your horse's satchel? Well now you can't use it. Committed a crime in front of strangers? Now you have to deal with witnesses.

Everyone in the game's world has something to say. NPCs (nonplayer characters) can be helpful, hostile, informative or completely indifferent, and Red Dead 2 approaches interacting with them in a way that feels tangibly different from other games. Instead of hitting a button to activate a dialogue tree, you pull the left trigger to engage while still having the agency to continue moving around, or even walk away. It's a small detail that helps create a sense of realistic discourse, and something I can see finding its way into other games moving forward. If you play things right, these encounters can lead to valuable information about easy targets, backstory or places to explore.

While fast-travel mechanics begin to open up more as the game's story progresses, a lot of Red Dead 2 is spent on horseback. You'll soon find that your relationship with your horse is an important bond that needs nurturing. The more comfortable you get with it, the more agile it becomes. That means you'll have to get used to feeding, soothing and, of course, brushing your horse.

Rockstar Games

Red Dead 2 offers an interesting approach at these long chunks of travel that string the game together. You can activate a cinematic camera mode -- complete with black bars, as above -- that will allow Arthur to continue on autopilot while showing off the game's breathtaking setting. It's a smart addition that helps pass the time, and something I found myself using much more than I initially thought I would.

It's easy to get caught up in a lot of the nonviolent mischief peppered throughout Red Dead 2's world. You can go hours and hours without engaging in a gunfight, but when you do, it's as satisfying as ever.

There's an unsettling quality to the way shootouts unravel in Red Dead 2, perhaps because of just how realistic they appear. Flashes of frenetic action blur the line between game and film, sometimes rivaling the most brutal scenes of a Scorsese or Tarantino flick. In short, they're simply amazing. The fan-favorite slo-mo Dead Eye mechanic also makes its return and offers some wild visuals and striking moments of bullet-riddled chaos.

Rockstar Games

Red Dead 2's weapons fire with chilling authenticity. Environments crumble as they take damage from bullets and collisions and the game's sandbox world seems completely destructible. On a PS4 Pro, Red Dead 2 is a jarring display of sprawling plains and endless vistas. Its environmental details are fascinating from both a design and technical perspective.

Suffice it to say, Red Dead 2 feels like a game that you can play for months and months. It's a world that is extremely easy to get lost in, wherein a masterful collection of details are all working together to trigger your senses into believing everything you see.

There's no shortage of original, compelling gameplay to take part in and it goes without saying that no two playthroughs will look alike. We'll be talking about Red Dead 2's secrets and easter eggs for months, if not years to come.

Rockstar Games

Red Dead Redemption 2 has undoubtedly raised the bar for narrative open-world games and will likely have a lasting impact on how they are made in the future. It pushes the envelope of what we understand is possible in a video game. It seems that every time we get something new from Rockstar, things inevitably change. With Red Dead 2 it feels like this shift will be defined by an experience that works hard to convince the player they aren't necessarily inside a video game, or beholden to a set of rules that a specific genre dictates.

For more on Red Dead Redemption 2, visit our friends at Giant Bomb and GameSpot.

More from GameSpot: Red Dead Redemption 2's new features: Gun durability, swimming, fishing, horse bonding and more  

Red Dead Redemption 2: Trailers, release date, gameplay, plot details, bonus content and more.